A few notes concerning my picks for the worst films of 2011. I do not set out to see every release in any given year, so I typically avoid the titles I believe are completely hopeless. Hence, the absence of some popular ‘worst of’ picks like ‘The Zookeeper’ or ‘Dream House’. Still, I failed to avoid several of these kinds of films in spite of my best efforts or better instincts. But if I didn’t see them, I didn’t rank them.
Some categorize a worst picture as a noble attempt that nevertheless fails on every level. Others consider a worthy candidate any film that doesn’t bother to make any attempt at all. The picks on my list accommodate both types.
Straw Dogs – Rod Lurie plays outside his usual political sandbox, and proves completely out of his element. What’s most remarkable here – especially from a filmmaker whose work I have consistently enjoyed – is the inept writing and direction. You have no idea what motivates these characters from one scene to the next, and their behaviors seem completely nonsensical from beginning to end. Peckinpah’s film wasn’t afraid to be ambiguous; this one trades that ambiguity for cluelessness. Outside of its feverish, Scorsese-era Cape Fear feel, and a clever change of location to the deep south – little in the film works or seems fully fleshed out. The original film felt dangerous and incendiary; it was alive. Lurie’s version is merely mystifying. These missteps are elucidated in the performances as well, particularly the one given by the usually reliable James Woods, who delivers an embarrassing 1oth-generation copy of his Byron De La Beckwith ‘Ghosts of Mississippi’ portrayal.
Jack and Jill – Two scenes in this film (one of which is a small comedy classic) elicit big laughs, and both involve Al Pacino, who seems to be doing a clever parody of himself and the public persona he’s unwittingly cultivated over the past decade. Let’s hope – with this film – he’s exorcised that persona for good. As for the remaining 90 or so minutes of ‘Jack and Jill’, it’s about as uninspired, obnoxious and grating as it gets, even for an adolescent Adam Sandler movie.
New Year’s Eve – Clumsily calculated cheese from start to finish, and devoid of any trace of genuine human emotion or connection, ‘New Year’s Eve’ has an empty head and a fake heart. It’s the kind of movie you’ve already seen a dozen times even if you haven’t seen it.
I Melt with You – Monotonous and headache-inducing, Mark Pellington’s putrid film tells the story of five high school buddies who reunite as broken and haunted men in their forties. You could imagine a good film resulting from an ensemble as accomplished as Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, and Christian McKay. This one isn’t it. The guys do massive amounts of alcohol and drugs, then pretentiously pontificate over the direction and meaning of their lives, then they go back to more drugs and drink. And on and on and on.
Super 8 – A prime example of what can go wrong when a fanboy mentality consumes a director’s work. Super 8 is an homage to many films that JJ Abrams obviously holds dear – E.T., The Goonies, hell, even The Fugitive – but what it isn’t is Super 8. It’s like a collection of cinematic references that fails to establish any identity of its own. And what it does establish in those references gets the surfaces of its sources right – the suburban setting, the alien presence, and an abundance of lens flares – but it doesn’t nail the heart or the story sense. The building blocks are there, but the adhesive that joins them is missing. While the child performances are terrific, and the rapport between them stands as the film’s highlight, the script lets them down every step of the way. Why is the alien so arbitrary without any relevance to the main plot or character’s journey? Why do they fail to develop an obvious connection between the two lead kids – both lost and grieving a missing mother – and instead throw in a cockamamie subplot concerning an alcoholic guilt-ridden over his role in an accidental death? The ending looks good, but makes no dramatic sense, and it’s actually a little insulting in its betrayal of the grieving process. It strives for emotional resonance, but comes across as merely an empty gesture. The same can be said for the entire movie.
The Human Centipede 2 – Vile, ridiculous, and wholly unnecessary, this controversial sequel is at least a smidge better than the first film given its interesting ‘copycat violence’ subplot, and creepy, Peter Lorre-inspired silent lead performance. Gory in the extreme, but so completely stupefying in its outrageousness that it fails to even minutely quicken the pulse.
The Thing – Some remakes are thoughtful and ingenious reinventions, or at least feel that way because they carry a different relevance in a modernized setting. This remake of a remake fails to distinguish itself in any way from its obviously superior predecessors. The only feeling it evokes is an overwhelming impulse to return to the John Carpenter version as soon as humanly possible.
Battle: Los Angeles – The shaky cam is pushed to its limits in this wanna be crowd-pleasing popcorn flick, as is the audience’s tolerance. This heavily militarized version of ‘Independence Day’ lacks the attempts at humor and character (as shallowly conceived as they were) of that blockbuster hit, so there’s not even a semblance of a human being on screen that you can root for. But, at least we can still sit back and allow the images of mass destruction to wash over us, since that’s the real reason why we frequent this genre in the first place, right? Wrong. The non-stop shaky cam technique employed throughout the film seems to be an attempt to mask the lackluster effects (though this is the film to study if you’re into computer-generated smoke). The budget for ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ is substantially more modest than most disaster films of this sort – a reported $70 million. Still, wouldn’t the filmmakers want to do everything in their power to make sure the audience sees every penny of that money on the screen instead of obscuring it?
Cowboys and Aliens – Jon Favreau has made an ambitious, yet tone deaf film that you can place in the ‘completely squandered opportunity’ file. I can only assume that the script, which had first attracted studio attention many years ago before suffering a development hell coma, underwent a massive series of rewrites that succeeded only in neutering the B movie cheesiness inherent in its title. This is a film that takes itself way too seriously, when it really requires a self-referential sense of humor and a hefty shot of fun. It’s as dull, sour and bloodless as the expression that seems permanently plastered on Harrison Ford’s face.
Tabloid – Critic Roger Ebert claims to have seen Errol Morris’ documentary ‘Gates of Heaven’ more than any other film. When he’s shown it to audiences over the years, many of them are perplexed as to whether or not Morris is making fun of his subjects, or just presenting them as they really are. There are no such doubts in his approach to ‘Tabloid’, the story of a woman whose life is rife with the juicy stuff of gossip fodder. Morris condescends his subject to an insulting degree, and that results in a film that’s as self-inflated, judgmental, and as unnecessary as the tabloids themselves.